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I have to confess that I don't know a damn thing about wakeboarding. Well, I
know that it involves a boat, a crazy person on a board and lots of water, but
beyond that I'm flabbergasted. The thing is, no one else here knows any more
than I do, which means I win!
And chances are, you don't know a thing about it either. It's technically
an extreme sport, the kind of event that crops up late at night on ESPN 2 or
during the X-Games, but by and large the activity doesn't get anywhere near
the attention of skating, biking or surfing.
This makes Activision and Shaba's decision to crank out a game based on wakeboarding
even more mystifying, and I'd be lying if I said I had high hopes for what looked
like Tony Hawk trying not to drown.
But surprise surprise, Wakeboarding Unleashed Featuring Shaun Murray
is actually a good, solid entry into this Xtremely crowded field.
Wakeboarding Unleashed is tucked firmly in the ever-broadening niche
of Activision sports gaming. You ride a board being towed by a boat while holding
on to a rope, performing all kinds of acrobatic feats by leaping back and forth
across the wake. Think maniacal water-skiing on a boogieboard.
You can ride as a number of real-world wakeboarders (who presumably comprise the upper echelon of the sport, but what do I know?), taking on 9 big levels while trying to complete challenges and rack up points. But some interesting gameplay dynamics offered by the somewhat unique sport mechanics helps this one stand out from the pack.
It all boils down to the interplay between the rider, the waves and the rope.
You effortlessly glide to and fro across the wake while the boat follows a track
through the level, busting out tricks by either getting air across the wake
or by leaping on and off objects found in and around the water. You can let
go of the rope at any time, which lets you reach all kinds of ridiculously high
places, after which you can call for the rope and it comes flying back to you
It's all made intuitive thanks to the Tony Hawk control scheme. It's
all here - grab tricks, manuals, grinds, specials, you name it - and it's all
done using the same control system as the THPS standard, so THPS
fans will be right at home. Of course, being towed by a boat means you can't
just stop to catch your breath, so newbies might find the fast, consistent pace
Rather than pre-set time limits, your scoring prowess will continually fill a Groove meter, which slowly degrades. When that meter is depleted, you're done. It's a nice way to let players play to their skill level instead of stopping them in the middle of a great run.
Though being tugged down a path doesn't give you the freedom of movement that other games of this ilk do, the sweet level design makes it a moot point. The levels are quite creative, ranging from a backwater Bayou and the jungles of Belize to the waterways of Venice and a few competitive water parks. You'll easily grind off trees, logs, cranes, boats and all manner of river debris, but the big points and coolest bits are found off to the sides where the levels are really defined. Grinding across bridges in Venice or along the rooftops of the dilapidated Springfield is just plain fun.
Getting to those cozy spots is half the battle, and if you don't master the
rope dynamics, you won't get very far. Figuring out when to let go of the rope
and when to call it back is essential to getting anywhere in Wakeboarding
Unleashed; suffice to say, this is a hard game.
despite its interesting premise, the difficulty is also caused by some really
boring level goals. At first they seem fine - Score this many points, Manual
this many feet, etc. - but they're often repeated level to level with just steeper
point totals. To extend this a bit, each level features about 9 other goal elements
in the form of Challenges. These play out separately from the main Groove meter
mode, placing you in a certain area of the track for each Challenge. You might
have to grind a set distance or collect floating stars or even win a boat race
(yep, you can drive the boat).
Unfortunately, the Challenges get repetitive as well, rarely taking advantage of each level's specific focus. Instead, you'll grind a set distance, collect floating stars and race boats over and over again. Say hello to the restart option.
Or just say hello to the multiplayer, which features standard modes like HORSE
and Trick Attack alongside an interesting Co-Op mode. Here one guy drives the
boat while the other guy rides the board. It's entertaining for a bit'until
you realize that there's a good reason they called this game Wakeboarding
Unleashed instead of Driving The Wakeboarder's Boat Unleashed.
It's much more fun being the towee than the tower.
The single-player is robust enough to keep you playing for a while, though
there are several missteps that hold it back from the glory of its THPS
grandfather. There are no manual replays, so don't expect to check out your
amazing moves more than once. Plus, there's no Create-a-Boarder option, so it's
play as the pros or bust.
Unlike the biking and skating games, Wakeboarding Unleashed takes place
on water, which thankfully looks really good. The wake boils and churns and
your boarder glides upon its surface realistically. The boarder animations are
a bit stiff, though, and some clipping errors are found on both PS2 and Xbox
versions, so don't be surprised if you fly right through some should-be-deadly
support beams. The Xbox version has slightly crisper textures and edges, but
the two are otherwise identical.
The sound is decent thanks to a pretty varied soundtrack, which includes some
great older songs like The Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" and
Van Halen's rockin' "Unchained." Xbox owners can also rip their
own tunes, and other sound effects are par for the course.
But Wakeboarding Unleashed is a better-than-par game, something I never
would have bet on when it first arrived. Interesting rope dynamics, solid control
and creative levels make up for the redundant goals and challenges, leading
to a worthwhile dip in the water.